American lifestyle must change, says neuroscientist

Tom James @ 21-10-2008

According to neuroscientist Peter Whybrow, head honcho of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Behavior at UCLA the concept of the American DreamTM is a “biological impossibility.” From the Wired article:

“We’ve been taught, especially in America, that happiness will be at the end of some sort of material road, where we have lots and lots of things that we want,” said Whybrow

Our built-in dopamine-reward system makes instant gratification highly desirable, and the future difficult to balance with the present. This worked fine on the savanna, said Whybrow, but not the suburbs: We gorge on fatty foods and use credit cards to buy luxuries we can’t actually afford. And then, overworked, underslept and overdrawn, we find ourselves anxious and depressed.

This seems to be related to the newly-emerging discipline of behavioural economics, as pioneered by Richard Thaler and others. Here is a good introduction to behavioural economics on Edge.org.

Behavioural economics seem to reflect the fact that economists are coming round to the intuitively obvious idea that human beings really are not super-intelligent, near-psychopathic, wholly self-interested beings like homo economicus.

[image from Orin Optiglot on flickr]


The next revolution in social policy

Tom James @ 18-07-2008

The reliably interesting Daniel Finkelstein has a good article on what he sees as a social psychology revolution developing via the collision of the two disciplines of evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics. From the article:

Yet the integration of the academic work on human behaviour into politics is still very much in its infancy. It is roughly now where economic understanding was in about 1978, before the Thatcher revolution. It is possible, indeed usual, to have entire policy debates in which the science of human behaviour doesn’t figure at all.

For instance, in the past two weeks we have had discussion of obesity and of knife crime. Social norms have hardly figured. If everybody thinks that everybody else is getting fat, then more people will put on weight. The campaigns designed to reduce obesity may be spreading it. Similarly the very idea that every young person is carrying a knife increases knife crime. The obvious route of making such behaviour seem odd and isolated appears not to have occurred to any major politician.

This does tie in with studies that crop up every few weeks concerning how humans co-operate and compete, and how our perceptions of risk and reward work.

One recent study concerns how mathematical models that include diversity of connectedness in social networks can show why altruism appears in societies. It’s an interesting article, even if a little hard to understand.

redpill_bluepillApropos the free-market intellectual revolutions of the eighties and the use (or overuse) of mathematical models in the study of human behaviour, check out Adam Curtis’ brilliant The Trap series of documentaries – they can be found on YouTube here.

The idea that we are entering a new era in which policy is created by politicians who have an empirical understanding of human nature is a compelling one. Doubtless it is full of potential for science fictional speculation.

[story from Physorg, article from The Times Online][image from Night Star Romanus on flickr]